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Lakers prioritize long-term potential with 3-and-D wing Max Christie

With limited means to improve their team this offseason, the Lakers used their most reliable roster-building tool over the past decade: the draft.

The Lakers got younger while improving their 3-point shooting and defensive versatility through the 2022 NBA Draft on Thursday, selecting 19-year-old wing Max Christie with the 35th pick, before signing undrafted rookies Scotty Pippen Jr. and Cole Swider to two-way contracts, The Athletic’s Shams Charania and Bill Oram reported. Shareef O’Neal, son of Lakers legend Shaquille O’Neal, also agreed to play in the NBA Summer League with the Lakers, sources confirmed to Charania.

Christie is the headline addition — a 3-and-D prospect the Lakers were willing to purchase a draft pick to acquire.

The Lakers, who began the day without a pick, acquired the 35th pick from the Orlando Magic in exchange for a 2028 second-round pick (the better of either the Lakers’ or Washington Wizards’) and cash considerations on Thursday morning. The Athletic reported earlier in the week that the Lakers were looking to purchase a second-round pick.

Lakers vice president of basketball operations and general manager Rob Pelinka said the Lakers strategically identified the top of the second round as the area of the draft into which the team wanted to trade. The talks with the Magic, who also had the No. 1 and No. 32 picks, started about a week ago. The Lakers pinpointed about 35 players they were confident in drafting and felt that securing a top-35 pick was essentially locking in a first-round talent for them.

Christie, a 6-foot-6 wing out of Michigan State, was the highest remaining prospect on the Lakers’ draft board, league sources told The Athletic.

The Lakers had hoped Gonzaga guard Andrew Nembhard, the No. 31 pick, would fall to them at No. 35, sources said. Kendall Brown, the No. 48 pick, was also in consideration for Los Angeles at No. 35. The Lakers considered purchasing another second-round pick to draft Brown, sources said.

Pelinka said Christie was the consensus pick for the Lakers’ scouts and front office, which is rare on draft night. Christie stood out in his interview with Pelinka, Joey Buss, Jesse Buss and Kurt Rambis at the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago. Christie didn’t work out for the Lakers and said it was “a little bit of a surprise” that they picked him.

Christie ranked No. 27 on The Athletic’s draft expert Sam Vecenie’s final 2022 Big Board and was projected as the No. 31 pick. The Lakers are high on his long-term potential while acknowledging he’s a ways away from reaching his lofty ceiling.

“We really think he’s a guy that if he would’ve chosen to go back to school, you’re talking about a guy that could’ve easily been in the top 20, top 15 of next year’s draft,” Pelinka said on a video conference call with local reporters. “So to be able to get a player like that and develop him with the 35th pick is rare, and we’re really proud.”

Christie is different from most recent Lakers non-lottery draft picks in that he’s something of a project. (Talen Horton-Tucker is another recent exception.) Christie is only 190 pounds and needs to get much stronger to handle the physicality of the NBA game on both ends. Most of Christie’s current limitations stem from his weight and lack of strength.

That said, Christie projects as an NBA shooter, first and foremost. He didn’t shoot 3s well as a freshman (31.7 percent), but his form, mechanics and pre-college numbers suggest that was an anomaly.

Christie said he’s hungry to show he’s a better shooter than he was last season.

“I think the biggest thing is my ability to make shots and shoot the 3,” Christie said on a conference call with local reporters. “I don’t think that was displayed very well at Michigan State. I think having a little bit of a reset coming into the NBA now, I think I’ll be able to display that at a better level.”

Christie was a five-star recruit and McDonald’s All-American who was a projected first-round pick entering his freshman season at Michigan State. He struggled by those standards, especially from distance, but he still earned All-Freshman honors in the Big Ten.

He shot 38 percent on corner 3s, which are the exact type of high-percentage looks he’ll get in a LeBron James-led offense. Christie has a high release point that allows him to shoot over defenders when coming off screens and against closeouts.

His ability to shoot off movement, particularly in the midrange area, can be a valuable wrinkle in the Lakers’ offense. He’s an expert at using screens and his own footwork to create separation from his defender. He has good balance and control planting and rising off pindowns.

With time in the Lakers’ player development system, one of the best in the league, Christie could eventually make significant strides.

I think Phil Handy and Chris Jent, in particular, those two guys are gonna do a tremendous job with a guy like Max Christie,” Pelinka said. “Just get his shot release to be a little bit quicker and more consistent, but I think long term he’s got all the tools to be a really good shooter.”

Christie has quite the bag offensively. He can hit one-dribble pull-ups, side-steps, floaters in the lane and contested turnaround jumpers. He knows how to read defenses and defenders, then how to counter their approach.

At the same time, Christie is a slow-twitch athlete who can struggle to get to the rim and finish while there. As Vecenie noted, Christie only attempted one shot at the rim per game in half-court situations and made just 40.9 percent of those attempts, both abysmal marks. He also shot just 42.9 percent on 2-pointers and rarely gets to the free-throw line (4.0 attempts per 100 possessions).

His lack of strength and explosion make it difficult for him to finish through contact. He can be pushed around on both sides of the ball. He can expose the ball at the rim as he compensates for his lack of athleticism, making himself a target to have his shot blocked or altered. His lack of leg strength also likely played a part in his shooting struggles, especially later in the season.

Christie is a high-IQ player who rarely turns the ball over. He has the potential to develop into a secondary ballhandler and playmaker, though he didn’t show much of that skill set at Michigan State. More likely than not, though, he’ll primarily be a catch-and-shoot threat who can both spot up and come off screens.

The most encouraging element of his game, at least in the short term, is on the defensive end, where Christie’s 6-foot-9 wingspan and 8-foot-7 standing reach help him defend multiple positions. He uses his length well to contest shots and crowd passing angles. He has quick feet, navigating opponent screens almost as well as he does his own on the other end. He competes hard and is unafraid to put his body on the line physically.

Christie’s lack of weight and strength hurts him on drives, when he can be bulldozed by opponents charging to the rim. He gives up too many straight-line drives. His shooting confidence and overall toughness are also question marks for NBA scouts.

“He’s gotta get stronger, and he knows that,” Pelinka said. “It’s something that we’ve talked about with him. He’s gotta get out here early and start to put in the work with our Lakers’ strength staff. I think he’s got the ability to move his feet, probably guard three positions. He’s got long arms.

“You can kind of project forward what you think a kid’s build will be, and he’s got a great frame on him and he likes the weight room. That’s a question we asked him. So I hate to put a timeline on it — I can’t really predict how someone’s gonna grow and fill out. But he’s got a great frame, a great basketball set of skills, and I think he’ll develop quickly.”

Christie, an Arlington Heights, Ill., native who was born just a few months before James was drafted No. 1 by the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2003, is entering the ultimate fish bowl in Los Angeles. He said he has yet to fully grasp that he’s joining a roster with James, Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook.

“I definitely thought about it,” Christie said. “I don’t know if it’s completely processed within my mind the magnitude of what you just said. But it’s definitely crossed my mind a couple of times.”

Golden State Warriors star Draymond Green, a Michigan State alum who was the No. 35 pick in the 2012 NBA Draft, shouted out his fellow second-round Spartan.

“I actually didn’t see the tweet,” Christie said. “But now that I’m hearing about it, that’s really cool. Props to Draymond for that. But, yeah, obviously, he was the 35th pick as well, so it’s really cool to see him shout me out and tweet at me like that.”

The Lakers desperately need players who can space the floor, move without the ball and defend multiple positions around James and Davis. Christie theoretically checks all of the boxes. The fit is obvious.

His development is going to require patience as he grows stronger, improves as a shooter and acclimates to the NBA game. The Lakers view him as a key part of their budding young core of role players, including Austin Reaves, Stanley Johnson, Horton-Tucker and Wenyen Gabriel. Christie is another high-character prospect who’s a notoriously hard worker.

“I think the wrong thing to do in the draft is to just say, ‘We need to get this guy who can play for us right now,’” Pelinka said. “That’s when you can make big mistakes. We wanted to take the player that we thought could help our team in the current present time but really develop into something special. And we think Max Christie has that DNA.”

The Lakers’ scouting department, led by assistant general manager Jesse Buss, has proven to be one of the best in the league over the past decade. The team has an impressive draft history over the past decade, especially so in the late first/early second portion of the draft. Some of their recent picks in that range: Kyle Kuzma, Ivica Zubac, Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance Jr., Josh Hart and Thomas Bryant. All six of those players have become starters or key rotation players in the NBA. The scouting department has earned the benefit of the doubt with any prospect they deem worthy of being a Laker. It doesn’t have many misses.

Last season, the Lakers didn’t even have a pick and still ended up with a rotation player in Austin Reaves. They also identified Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk late in the 2018 NBA Draft, Horton-Tucker late in the 2019 NBA Draft and signed Alex Caruso out of the G League in 2017.

In contrast to Christie, Pippen (21) and Swider (23) are older and offer more NBA-ready skill sets. Pippen is a “tenacious, defensive-minded kid that is going to compete every night he plays,” Pelinka said. Pippen Jr. impressed the Lakers in Chicago and in his draft workout for them with his energy and competitiveness. He was No. 88 on Vecenie’s top 100 Big Board.

Swider is a sniper who can “really fly off screens and bend the defense,” according to Pelinka. The Lakers believe he has the potential to become an elite shooter. He wasn’t ranked on Vecenie’s top 100 Big Board.

It’s worth noting that the Lakers are often aggressive switching up their two-way contracts and are not afraid to replace a player if they think they found a better prospect or fit.

Pippen Jr., Swider and even O’Neal will get their chances to prove they belong in the league at Las Vegas Summer League in a couple of weeks. But the Lakers will ultimately be judged by how Christie grows and develops over the next few seasons.

Considering Los Angeles’ stellar late-pick draft track record, it wouldn’t be surprising if Christie becomes a rotation player next season. In the right lineups and scheme, he can probably hold his own defensively against bench units. If his shot progresses, he has the potential to be one of the team’s best shooters.

In some ways, there are surface-level parallels between him and Reaves’ NBA readiness. Christie is longer and skinnier, with much better shooting and scoring potential (and worse defense and ballhandling/playmaking). Reaves was essentially ready from Day 1.

The safest bet is that Christie takes a season or two to develop before cracking the rotation.

At a minimum, Christie is a first-round talent who will be on a team-friendly deal as a second-round pick. If the Lakers end up dealing Westbrook, before the season or by the trade deadline, Christie could be an attractive sweetener to entice a trade partner.

At a maximum, Christie becomes an above-average 3-point shooter with a crafty mid-range game, excelling off pindowns and floppy actions (similar to those used by J.J. Redick in his heyday), and defending multiple positions with his long arms and bulked-up frame. That type of player can start or play a pivotal role off the bench.

The Lakers’ draft night was a success insofar as they acquired a player with the most coveted role-player skill set in the league. Even if Christie doesn’t contribute next season, trading up into the second round and taking a swing on a 19-year-old with his talent and pedigree is a shrewd investment.

“We project him as a guy that has the talent to be a starter in the NBA,” Pelinka said, “and we’re going to put in the work to put him on that path.”

(Top photo of Max Christie: Vincent Carchietta / USA Today)

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